Longing for a buried past

by Emma Brown

If you have heard of the Yaak Valley in northwest Montana, and if you know of the threats to its particular wildness, it’s probably because you’ve read a plea for its protection by Rick Bass. Bass’ fierce love for the Yaak has not always been good for his fiction. “It bleeds just like blood throughout the pages; it’s in all his books now,” said author and activist David James Duncan in a 2002 interview. “The ruin of your home infects your storytelling.”

But The Lives of Rocks, Bass’ latest, is no bloody ode to wrecked wilderness. It is a slender anthology of moments inhabited by wickedly drawn characters. It is an offering from a writer who knows that well-told tales are as important as urgent exhortations.

The stories are united not by their settings, which range from an industrial river in Texas to a humid summer resort in Alabama, or by their narrators — a young woman hunting elk, a man shepherding his wife to her doctor through a near-biblical storm — but by a sense of loss. The nine stories in this collection are imbued with longing for pasts that lie beneath the surface of everyday life, like rocks buried underground.

At the center of “Pagans,” the story of a friendship among three teenagers, is the Sabine, a river so laden with poisons that it occasionally ignites. “The snaky, wandering river fires, in various petrochemical colors, seemed more like a celebration than a harbinger of death,” remembers the narrator 40 years later. That Bass’ characters find mystery in the memory of this half-dead river is evidence that everything becomes achingly beautiful once you’re decades removed from it. The three grow up and fall away from each other; they remind us that living with nostalgia for what might have been is like scraping back skin to see that “the red muscle of a world not at all like the image of the one we believe we have crafted above.”

“Neither you nor I can really be sure of how much of any story is fiction, or art, and how much of it is activism,” says the narrator in “Fiber.” Maybe so, but it is clear from the The Lives of Rocks that Rick Bass has not traded art for activism. He is, at heart, a storyteller.

The Lives of Rocks
Rick Bass
211 pages, hardcover: $23.
Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

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